The Iron Road a memoir by Al Purdy
Riding the Rails • “At the height of the Great Depression, two hundred and fifty thousand teenage hoboes were roaming America. Some left home because they felt they were a burden to their families; some fled homes shattered by the shame of unemployment and poverty; some left because it seemed a great adventure. Whether with the blessings of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life. These young people, learned lessons of self-reliance and as adults carry memories of nostalgia and pain.” • http://web.olivet.edu/gradusers/nhenric1/Riding.html
“All Aboard!” Bakersfield, CA., April, 11, 1940. Two Oklahoma boys headed back home standing on the edge of a flat waiting for the freight to start.
. . . forced off the farm . . . • “Many people forced off the farm heard about work hundreds of miles away ... or even half a continent away. Often the only way they could get there was by hopping on freight trains, illegally. More than two million men and perhaps 8,000 women became hoboes. At least 6,500 hoboes were killed in one year either in accidents or by railroad "bulls," brutal guards hired by the railroads to make sure the trains carried only paying customers. Finding food was a constant problem. Hoboes often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg.
. . . the bulls . . . • “Riding the rails was dangerous. The bulls were hired to keep hoboes off trains, so you couldn't just go to a railroad yard and climb on. Most hoboes would hide along the tracks outside the yard. They'd run along the train as it gained speed, grab hold and jump into open boxcars. Sometimes, they missed. Many lost their legs or their lives. As the train was reaching its destination, the hoboes had to jump off before a new set of bulls to arrest them or beat them up. • “But no amount of clubbing or shooting could keep all of the hoboes off the trains. In many cases, the hoboes had no other choice but to hop a freight and look for work.” • http://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_07.html
Two youngsters aged 15 and 16 traveling in the company of an older hobo. Here they are returning to the train after having filled some empty whisky bottles with drinking water at the railroad water tower. Said the older one, "He ain't at since yesterday morning." And then "Don't publish my pitcher in the paper. If my paw saw it, he'd beat hell out of me. I'm sposed to be thumbing." Their story was that they were returning from a visit to an uncle's in San Francisco to their home in Southern California, but their grimy appearances revealed they had been riding the freights for some time and traveling companions volunteered that they had come from Arizona. In Fresno that evening town police booked them as vagrants, and along with about fifteen others riding the same freight they were given sixty days.
consulting a road map Sitting on a load of pipe on a flat car, hat tied on with string, a road map is consulted to determine the distance between points.
meaning • This memoir includes vivid details about the Great Depression era, but it is also very much about a personal journey. Quote lines that reveal Purdy’s personal thoughts, feelings, and preoccupations. • Re-read the closing paragraphs starting with “I was homesick” and ending with “. . . lay behind.” What does Purdy mean when he says, “. . . The green country of childhood lay behind.”?
form • This memoir begins and ends with lines of poetry. Why do you think Purdy chose to frame his story in this way? • Discuss why Purdy breaks the poetic narrative exactly where he does to embed his own story.
style • Purdy’s style is very poetic. Identify examples of the following, commenting on the effectiveness of these poetic devices in helping the reader empathize with the speaker. • personification • simile • alliteration • onomatopoeia • repetition
personal response to text • Write a personal response to this text, focusing on the idea Purdy develops regarding the role that self-respect plays when responding to injustice. Support your idea(s) with reference to his memoir. • Select a prose form that is appropriate to the ideas you wish to express and that will enable you to effectively communicate to the reader (short essay, rant, newspaper article, editorial, interior monologue, short story, personal observation, etc.) • Discuss ideas and impressions that are meaningful to you • Respond from a personal, critical and/or creative perspective • Consider how you can create a strong unifying effect